Those visiting Mosul at this time of the year might think that there was some kind of natural disaster in effect. There are queues of cars waiting to leave the city. The phenomenon began a month ago, with Mosul locals leaving the city as spring begins here, searching for a respite from urban pollution and violence.
Local woman Younis and her family have been preparing to leave the city for two days – last Friday they packed cooking tools, picnic carpets, a tent and other items and departed for a nearby lake.
“It’s for our peace of mind,” Younis explains.
Mosul has a long spring, from February to April; the city is not nicknamed the Mother of Two Springs for nothing. And one of the most important spring rituals, enacted by one Mosul generation after another, is the recreational trip out to surrounding green areas. One of the most popular areas is the lake attached to the Mosul Dam and the Mar Mattai, or St Matthew, monastery.
Obviously there are plenty of reasons for people to want to escape Mosul – the city is a flashpoint of ethnic and sectarian tensions, as well as a base for extremist groups like Al Qaeda. Additionally the existing infrastructure for the 1.7 million inhabitants is already stressed. The fact that it is much more difficult for Iraqis to enter the neighbouring, semi autonomous region of Iraqi Kurdistan, which is relatively peaceful, is another reason why so many Mosul locals are trying to find some sort of escape elsewhere. Iraqi Kurdistan has its own military and judicial system and after recent extremist attacks, has not been allowing as many Iraqi Arabs over its borders.
The other reason this happens now is the city’s annual spring festival. It first started in 1969, took place in early April and drew visitors from around the country. However the festival stopped being held in 2003 and some say this is because it was a festival organized by the former regime led by Saddam Hussein.
The province’s governor Atheel al-Nujaifi, has promised to revive the festival more than once but nothing has actually happened – as usual, this is because of the security situation. This doesn’t stop people from celebrating the festival online though, publishing pictures of previous festivals in more peaceful times and discussing better days.
This month, once out of Mosul city limits, one can see people sitting on grass everywhere as though there still is a festival. “People don’t care about the time they have to spend waiting at checkpoints to leave the city, nothing can stop them from doing this,” says local journalist, Jarir Mohammed. “They want peace regardless of the cost.”
There are all kinds of excursions organized by all sorts of groups: families, schools, young friends and clubs. Many of Mosul’s schools also organize trips for students.
On a hill overlooking the Mosul Dam lake, Younis’ family erect their tent. There are other tents all around theirs and the smells of grilling meat and of Mosul’s famous baked kibbeh dish of bulgur wheat and diced meat, fill the air.
“Spring is the best season for the human body,” opines a local doctor Jawad al-Shiber. “When the weather is cloudy, people suffer from depression and seasonal affective disorder. When it is too hot, people have no energy and they tend to be less active.”
Despite the happy picnic scenes, Mosul locals know their lives are not particularly easy at the moment. Yet the people of Mosul are strong and they will fight on; they won’t give up easily. And so they continue to practice their version of their lost festival of spring every year.